On the first Tuesday in February, more than 100 people crowded into a North Little Rock restaurant to listen to lies. Fishing stories, to be exact.
"Tales from the South," a weekly radio program of personal stories read by the authors, records live at Starving Artist Cafe, a Main Street eatery occupying a former furniture store; the ceiling is pressed tin and the floors are concrete. The art on the walls is largely amateur, with a preponderance of birds, flowers, fruit and horses. A price tag dangles from each.
The guest writer that week was to be Jerry McKinnis, long-time host of ESPN's "The Fishin' Hole." But McKinnis had to cancel at the last minute (though he no doubt would have approved of the mahi-mahi on the specials board), and actress Natalie Canerday, best known for her role as the mother in the movie "Sling Blade," stepped in to fill the spot.
Tucked into a corner by the bar, out of the flow of waiters and diners but visible from every table, was the reader's corner — a stool, high table and retro-style radio mic. Flanking the nook is appropriately Southern-themed art — V.L. Cox's screen door art, complete with soda-cracker signs and raccoons.
Paula Morell, "Tales from the South" host and creator and co-owner of Starving Artist, stepped to the microphone amid the din of conversations and clanking forks and asked everyone to turn off their cell phones. Then she gave them instructions: "If things are funny, laugh; if they're sad, groan." Tonight's diners are not only here for the food; they are also the radio show's live audience.
With introductions out of the way, Canerday stepped to the mic amid applause and, by way of disclaimer, said, "I only found out about this at 2:37." But the disclaimer proved unnecessary. Her free-form story, "From God's Country to Hollywood," was a rapid-fire, comical Portrait of the Actress as a Young Woman that recounted the hijinks of Canerday's early career, from child extra in "The Russellville Story," an ultra-local production, to the set of the Mike Nichols-directed film "Biloxi Blues."
In the Q-and-A session after the reading, Canerday, knowing her audience and the focus of the show, assured everyone: "I liked living in California, but I like living in Arkansas better."
The next Tuesday evening, before the dinner crowd poured in, Morell stopped her preparations long enough to relate the history of "Tales from the South." The program started six years ago, almost by accident, she said from her perch on one of Starving Artist's barstools. Morell was teaching an online English course when a fellow professor mentioned that he was starting a radio show that would feature true personal stories. Morell sent out a call to writers she knew in the area and received several stories. But then the radio show never materialized.
"Suddenly I had 10 really good stories on my hands, and I thought, hey, we should try to get a one-time show," Morell said.
So she cold-called KUAR and asked Ron Breeding, the station's news and program director, if he'd be interested in airing a few stories read by the authors. That first show brought such a positive response that KUAR asked Morell to do a regular show, and "Tales from the South" ran once a month for the first five years.
After the first year, the show began recording live at Starving Artist, then located in downtown Little Rock. It was a smaller affair than it is today — 30 to 40 people, drinks only, no dinner. In late 2008, Starving Artist moved to its present location in Argenta, downtown North Little Rock. When the restaurant moved across the river, the show naturally came with it. Then in 2010, the William F. Laman Public Library, a branch of which is housed in a converted firehouse one block up Main, approached Morell to see if she'd be willing to turn it into a weekly project.
"I said, I can't do that without some funding." The Laman Library came through with the funding, and the show went weekly in September 2010. "We've been pretty much standing room only since we started the weekly format."
Joanna J. Seibert is a recognizable voice to regular "Tales from the South" listeners. Seibert, a pediatric radiologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, has appeared on the show four or five times, by her count, beginning the very first year. She has read stories for Christmas and Mother's Day, and stories inspired by her own family and by her work with sick children.
"I think maybe the first time I was nervous," Seibert said of reading for "TFTS," but she quickly discovered the experience to be fun and rewarding. "You engage with the audience, and that's a real rare opportunity — to read your work and see what you thought was funny or serious, and maybe the audience thinks it is or not."
Seibert's route to "TFTS" was different from most readers', who submit stories to the show's website for consideration. Seibert is a writer with several books under her belt, and Morell — who in addition to being a restaurateur, radio host and teacher also runs the small press Temenos Publishing — has published several of Seibert's books. During the editing process, Morell would mine the manuscript for nuggets. According to Seibert, as Morell read them, she would say, "Oh, this would be a good story for the radio show."
For Seibert and her family, "TFTS" has always been a family affair. "Our family used to gather around and listen to it," Seibert said, and her daughter has also read for the show several times. "It's fun listening to it on the radio, but it's more fun being there."
"TFTS" is still focused on these personal stories from lesser known writers, but isn't afraid to try something new. Canerday's story is part of a new TFTS series, the Tin Roof Project. "I thought, what if we get well-known people doing this?" said Morell. So once a month, she invites noted Southerners — writers, actors, athletes — to tell their stories.
The series started last September with Grif Stockley, a historian and writer. Morell approached him about appearing on the show. "He said, 'I've got some stuff. You want me to read that, or do you want me to write you a new story?' " It was an easy answer for Morell. "He wrote me a brand new story. So from that point forward, everybody" — including P. Allen Smith, Janis Kearney, Suzi Parker and Lawrence Hamilton — "has written us a new story."
After six years, "Tales from the South" has become a mainstay of the Central Arkansas literary scene, but the show is always searching for new ways to widen its audience.
On April 12, "TFTS" is partnering with the Arkansas Literary Festival for a special show. "We're actually doing a contest," said Morell. The submitted stories will be judged by a panel of writers, editors and professors, and the writers of the top three stories will receive $100 each and read their stories on the April 12 show.
"TFTS" also finds itself in the midst of a renaissance in downtown North Little Rock and a showpiece in efforts to rebrand the area as the Argenta Arts District. Recently, one of the developers, and a fan of the show, stopped Morell. "He actually came to me and he said, 'From a marketing perspective, your show is ideal for putting us on a national platform.' "
Apparently, it's working. Southern Living will feature the neighborhood, including the radio program, in an upcoming issue.
The show is also extending beyond the Central Arkansas airwaves. In November 2010, Morell pitched TFTS to the World Radio Network, a satellite distribution service that boasts 130 million listeners worldwide, which picked up the program. More recently, PRX, Public Radio Exchange, began distributing it.
But all the innovation and attention are incidental, said Morell. "It's great that it markets the restaurant; it's great that it gets the area [some notice]," she said. "But ultimately the show is about giving the writers a chance to tell their stories."
"Tales from the South" is recorded before a live audience at 7 p.m. every Tuesday at Starving Artist Cafe, 411 Main St., North Little Rock. Dinner begins at 5. Reservations are not required but are highly recommended. The show airs at 7 p.m. Thursdays on KUAR and at 9 a.m. Sundays on the World Radio Network. An archive of recent broadcasts can be found online on the "TFTS" website (www.talesfromthesouth.com), on KUAR's website and on iTunes. An archive of all past shows will soon be available at the Laman Library website.